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Searching for Sex: What our Collective Google Searches Reveals about Us

Behavioral economist writes about how the vast database of sex-related searches on Google.com reveals about our collective insecurities.

Photo of Ting Ting Yan
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https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/opinion/sunday/seth-stephens-davidowitz-searching-for-sex.html?mcubz=3

The article is a quick read so I suggest reading it in full, but a few highlights tied either directly or tangentially to our brief:

  • Boyfriends seem to avoid sex more than girlfriends: 805 average monthly searches for "my boyfriend won't have sex with me" vs 413 for "my girlfriend won't have sex with me" (could also mean that guys resort to Google.com less, they are searching incognito, or they simply care less to find out about it even if it is happening) 
  • Lack of sex is the #1 complaint by those in relationships: 21,090 average monthly searches for "sexless marriage" 
  • Americans may also be exaggerating how often they have unprotected sex. About 11% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 say they are sexually active, not currently pregnant and not using contraception. "Even with relatively conservative assumptions about how many times they are having sex, we would expect 10% to become pregnant every month. But this would already be more than the total # of pregnancies in the US..."


This article appeared in the NYT at the beginning of 2015 and right away got a lot of attention because sex-related articles either in respected newspapers or popular magazines like Cosmos always relied on limited consumer surveys or "sexpert" opinion. This was one of the first to come from an economist based on something arguably unarguable - Google.com, the "vast database of intentions" that show collectively what humanity is searching for, curious about, fearful of. The writer goes on to say that actually out of all the stats and trends he saw from the millions of searches, we came across as "fairly nonsuperficial and forgiving... we are all so busy judging our own bodies that there is little energy left over to judge other people's."

This article inspires me to use some of the other Google publicly available search tools to track searches for STDs and sexual/reproductive health to look at trends on specific topics, where trends are originating around the world, which are growing or declining the fastest, and how these findings can illuminate the brief at hand. Although the article is not directly related to the issue of youth and adolescent sexuality, the research does show that if these collective neuroses and fears are so entrenched at adulthood, that implies they are never resolved (or even surfaced) at a young age. Perhaps any system that wants to solve for this problem - and I mean truly solve for it - must look to early, early education to get the right values instilled over time. We must approach it at the roots.

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Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Ting Ting Yan thanks for sharing this article! I loved hearing your inspirations and ideas, I'd love to learn a little more about your thoughts for next steps in your exploration into this topic!